Written by Patrick Hao
In past thirty years, the famous televangelist, Tammy Faye Bakker, has gone through a rehabilitation of her image, especially in the gay community. A lot of that has to do with her openly talking and accepting gay men during AIDs epidemic on her show, something that would still be unheard of today in the evangelical community. Another reason might be the opulence of Tammy Faye. Her famous makeup, iconic Joan Crawford “eyes,” and high-pitched squeak of a voice are a heightened form of femininity in a way that makes her ripe to become a gay icon. Her status grew with the 2000 documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, two directors whose subjects are often gay icons.
It is with this context that brings The Eyes of Tammy Faye, an adaptation biopic of the famous 2000 documentary. The director Michael Showalter, a staple of sketch comedy groups the Slate, has been dutifully directing nice, easygoing dramedies such as The Big Sick and My Name is Doris in the last few years. When it comes to his direction of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, I couldn’t quite understand why her story needed to be told.
Told like a standard biopic (it even opens with Tammy Faye getting ready for one final big performance) the film portrays the Tammy Faye story with a pitying reverence. We see Tammy Faye grow up in a religious home, one in which she is ostracized by the community because her mother (played by the always dependable Cherry Jones) is considered a harlot for having Tammy with her first husband. But this is presented as what fueled Tammy’s love of God.
Eventually, an Icarus like class fall which permeates these types of movies begins to take place. At the height of their power, excess of money and materialism by both Bakkers begins to overtake their priorities. Tammy Faye, however, is all but exonerated from any misuse of funds – something that was also a problem with the original documentary. Instead, she is portrayed as being blissfully oblivious to any wrongdoing, choosing to stay silent instead of asking questions.
That is the biggest problem with both the original documentary and Showalter’s direction. It is too reverential to Tammy Faye’s story and confuses any messages or themes that a viewer might come away with. Showalter does not have the ability to be a satirist like Scorsese did with Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street. Nor does the film ever give reason for us to empathize with Tammy Faye’s choices. Any criticisms of American evangelicals or the cult of celebrity seems hollow and well-trodden. This is all done much better on HBO’s woefully under-seen The Righteous Gemstones, a satire with a more biting edge that does not have to pay deference to a cult icon.
If this movie offers anything, it is a vehicle for Jessica Chastain to get an Oscar nomination. Her performance as Tammy Faye Bakker is not embarrassing but is the type of unrestrained performance that is fodder come Oscar time. She, like the real-life Tammy Faye is going to garner a lot of attention for her showiness but leans too heavily on makeup and prosthetics.
Only towards the end was there a sense that the filmmakers had any grasp on why this story is worth telling. But, by then it is too little too late.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye Trailer
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is currently screening in limited release and was feature at the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.